Last month, while catching up on old Drew Marshall shows, I found myself drawn into the back story of The Shack, a book by William P. (Paul) Young. Before the end of the 35 minute interview I had already received my confirmation email from Amazon.ca that my order was on its way. I felt compelled to read this book not for the story (which intrigued me slightly), but rather for the back story of how this book went from being a Christmas present for his kids to a self-published work selling over a half a million copies.
The synopsis is posted everywhere, so I’m not spoiling anything here:
Four years ago Mackenzie Allen Philips took his three children on a camping trip. While he was rescuing his elder children from drowning, a child predator abducted his 5-year-old daughter, Missy. The hunt led them to find her bloody dress in an abandoned shack in northern Oregon, which drove Mack into “the Great Sadness” where he’s lived with despair and guilt only a father who lost a child could know. Today Mack receives an invitation to return to the old shack in his mailbox, mysteriously signed, “–Papa“, the name his wife, Nan, uses to refer to God that represents an intimacy that he finds uncomfortable. He borrows a jeep and a loaded gun and drives back to the shack where he has a most unbelievable encounter with the Triune God, that leads him on an emotional journey from betrayal, hatred, judgment, and guilt, through understanding and experiencing grace, forgiveness, healing, and love—God’s kind of love.
Now this is where the story gets interesting. As a father myself I found it difficult to read the first few chapters. A close friend of mine has a 3-year-old daughter and found even just the premise to be too much to take. For me, having an understanding of the author’s heart as he wrote the story helped in my being able to press through the tough stuff in the first four chapters and move into the essence of what he wanted to communicate to his children. The story paints a picture of what I believe to be God’s intended loving relationship with His creation that many know in their heart of hearts to be true, but few able to verbalize.
The author breaks the religious stereotype of the Holy hierarchy (Father > Son > Holy Spirit). He describes scenes where Papa, Jesus, and Sarayu (the personification of the Holy Spirit) operate in complete submission to one another, yet none in power over the other because they’re One. When Mack expresses that he doesn’t understand how that is, Papa merely responds by saying, “That’s right. You don’t.” He also skips stones across other theological pools, such as how God could allow someone he loves to be condemned to hell, and how pain could become a part of God’s plan even though He would never orchestrate it.
The issue of life priorities (God first, family second, etc., etc.) is also discarded. The story surmises that for God to be considered “First”, means that everything else in our lives would be considered “Second”, with an additional risk that we could choose not to involve God in any of it. The thought, “how much time should I spend in prayer before I get on with my day?” and the guilt that follows if we miss that commitment weigh much too heavy on us. Instead were we to do everything in a continuous circle of relationship with God, we involve Him in every aspect of our being as the Center of our existence.
As a reader we’re invited to see beyond the character’s confusion and adapt this thinking to our own circumstances, which adds even more power to the story. For instance, because of my kids’ young ages, I used to find it more productive to clean their room without them. Now, I much rather prefer to get down on my hands and knees together with them in my presence. I still end up picking up most of their toys. However, I find it far more fulfilling for all of us because they talk to me about each toy we find, tell me the stories in their heads about the events of their day, and share with me their hopes, dreams, and struggles. In serving my sons, we all learn the value of relationship far beyond mere words.
Some have criticized Paul’s writing as being below average, and not of the caliber of a Tolkien, Lewis, and Dostoevsky. Others attack the book’s perceived theology, in the way the characters who represent God speak on behalf of God yet out of character with the speech patterns we’re used to from the New Testament. We are recommended to read Anne Rice’s Christ the Lord series as being superior writing and storytelling. While I have no doubt that Anne Rice is a phenomenal writer (her books are next on my hit list of must-reads), The Shack has proven itself to me to be an important work of fiction that communicates from the truth of God’s word. Of course, one would be wary to build their entire life around this story—even the author wouldn’t approve of that—but that shouldn’t stop us from allowing the story to reach into our lives and improve the depth of our fellowship with the Creator of the universe who somehow finds Himself extremely fond of us.
Drew Marshall interviews William P. Young:
- The author’s personal journey (Apr 26 2008)
- How the book became a best seller (Apr 5, 2008)
- Introduction to this self-published success story (Sep 22, 2007)